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Jeremiah 7:1-17

February 6, 2017

This is Jeremiah’s famous temple speech. He stood at the gate of the temple and predicted its destruction. It got him into a lot of trouble. He almost died because of this speech.

The temple in Jerusalem was not only the holiest place on earth for Jews, but it was regarded as specially protected by God. A hundred years earlier, when Hezekiah was king of Judah, the Assyrian king tried to capture Jerusalem. He surrounded it with a vast army. Everyone expected Jerusalem to fall. But then unexpectedly the Assyrian army was decimated by disease and had to retreat. The Jews attributed the victory to God’s miraculous intervention–and ever after they thought Jerusalem, and its temple, could never fall.

Jeremiah says, Not so. He reminds them of Shiloh–the first holy sanctuary of Israel. The ark of the covenant was originally kept there in a tabernacle. But what happened to Shiloh? It was overrun by an enemy army. The capital of Israel’s faith fell. Ans so the same can happen to Jerusalem and to the temple. There’s no point in exclaiming, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” The Lord is still free to desert it.

Why would God desert the temple? It’s obvious, says Jeremiah. You’re breaking every fundamental commandment that stands at the foundation of our covenant with God: stealing, murder, adultery, lying, and worshiping other gods. You can’t do these things and then run to God for protection. The only way you are going to be able to avoid destruction is if you put real justice into action: don’t oppress the refugee and immigrant; don’t make life hard for the orphan and the widow; don’t shed innocent blood; don’t worship other gods.

Jeremiah is doing more than addressing individual sins; he’s addressing a society and a government and a religious institution that has become corrupt. These practices have become widespread and acceptable. If we look closely at our society today, we may see some similar tendencies. Are we giving justice and protection to the most vulnerable among us? Are our institutions acting with honesty?

Jeremiah is so disgusted with the behavior of the so-called religious people, that he says–speaking for God–that the temple has become a den of robbers. He’s not accusing the priests and participants of literally being robbers; he’s saying that they’re treating the temple as if it were a hide-out, a safe place to hide from their sins.

Jeremiah’s condemnation and accusations against the temple and those who worship there are shocking and offensive. His words would have been struck from repetition and memory if it weren’t for one fact: the temple was destroyed. Jeremiah was vindicated. And so the most virulent attack on Jerusalem’s official religion became canonized as scripture. This is one of the most important features of the Jewish faith: strong self-critique. The prophetic critique of popular or civil religion is one of the most important contributions to Judaism and Christianity. We continue to be aware that those who critique us the most just may be the prophets of God. It helps to keep religion from becoming blinded by power and influence.

Jesus used Jeremiah’s famous line about a “den of robbers” when he overturned the tables in the temple in his day. He was protesting a hypocritical religion just as Jeremiah was. He also turned out to be right–the temple was destroyed a few decades later. Like Jeremiah he was arrested for his temple protest; unlike Jeremiah, he was executed. The tradition of critiquing our own religion is given to us by Jesus himself.

This is important to remember in these days when our tendency may be to criticize other religions. Jeremiah certainly criticized other religions as well. For instance, he was horrified by the practice of child sacrifice (7:31). But what disturbed him the most was when these horrific practices crept into the practices of his own religion. Jeremiah was mostly concerned about how we practice our own faith, rather than how others practice theirs. Before we can critique other religions with any integrity, we first must honestly critique our own.

In the New Testament Jesus is often portrayed as strongly criticizing the Pharisees. This has had the unfortunate result of fueling anti-semitism. Christians have used these passages to blast Judaism and oppress Jews. But Jesus was doing what all prophets do: critiquing his own religious leaders. So if we’re going to use these passages rightly, we need to apply them to critiquing Christianity, not Judaism.

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From → Jeremiah

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